6th Rangers move through tall grass enroute to rescue POWs
The 6th Rangers move through tall grass enroute to rescue POWs from a Japanese camp near Cabanatuan.

Rescue at Cabanatuan

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Reconnaissance
of the Objective Area

At Balingcari LTC Mucci and CPT Prince met the Alamo Scouts who reported: “The camp is guarded by approximately 200 soldiers and up to 1,000 are bivouacked by the Cabu Bridge.” LT Nellist confirmed the guerrilla report that an enemy division was moving past the camp toward Cabu. The Scout leader suggested: “If we wait twenty-four hours, sir, they will move on.”31 Mucci agreed and slipped the attack until 1945 hours on 30 January. He radioed Alamo Force headquarters where COL White was standing by, to delay the air support 24 hours later.32

31 Zedric, Silent Warriors, 189.

32 Mucci, “Rescue at Cabanatuan,” 15-16, quote from 16.

LT Nellist decided to pair up some of his shorter Scouts with CPT Pajota’s men. Borrowing some farm clothing, they began moving about the area looking like locals. They took notes, sketched the camp, kept track of the guard routines, and became familiar with key parts of the camp. The combined Scout/guerrilla teams located the guard barracks, POW buildings, guard towers and bunkers, and transient troops housing. They discovered a shed with four light tanks and marked its location. The Cabanatuan-Cabu City road (Highway 5) ran directly across the northern edge of the POW camp.33

33 Alexander, Shadows in the Jungle, 238-40.

LT Nellist and PFC Rufo V. ‘Pontiac’ Vaquilar, a native Filipino in the Scouts, really got into the farmer ruse. They found a grass hut containing farm tools just 300 meters in front of the front gate of the prison that overlooked the entire camp. Dressed as native farmers with large straw hats pulled low over their faces, the two Scouts approached the hut. They stopped periodically to inspect the surrounding crops. Nellist walked stooped over and limped. Separately, and by meandering routes, the two entered the hut and then remained all day taking notes. As Nellist and Vacquilar took turns sketching and observing the camp, “the natives would get the appropriate people, bring them in to us, and we’d question them and find out just exactly what we wanted to know.” With all that information, Nellist and PFC Vaquilar made detailed maps of the camp and annotated key elements on a G-2 aerial photo. At dusk the two returned to the rendezvous point with a wealth of information. “We knew which way the gate opened. We knew how many guards there were, what time they changed, how many strands of wire there were, and the works,” 1LT Nellist stated.34

34 Alexander, Shadows in the Jungle, 238-40; Zedric, Silent Warriors, 189-91, quotes from 190.

Photo of Alamo Scout Teams NELLIST and ROUNSAVILLE taken after the Cabanatuan rescue mission.
Photo of Alamo Scout Teams NELLIST and ROUNSAVILLE taken after the Cabanatuan rescue mission.
Front, from left: PFC Galen C. Kittleson; PFC Rufo V. Vaquilar; 1LT William Nellist; 1LT Thomas J. Rounsaville; and PFC Franklin B Fox.
Back, from left: PFC Gilbert Cox; Tech SGT Wilbert C. Wisner; SGT Harold N. Hard; SGT Andy E. Smith; PFC Francis H. Laquier.
Not shown are: PFC Sabas A. Asis; SSG Thomas A. Siason; PFC Alfred Alphonso; 1LT John M. Dove.

The pairing of Scouts with guerrillas increased the effectiveness of both units. Pooling them together produced a synergistic effect and allowed them to maximize each other’s capabilities. It combined the technical expertise of the Alamo Scouts with the guerrillas’ keen knowledge of the area and ability to move freely. The guerrillas lived near the camp, and were familiar with it and the surrounding fields, rivers, and woods. The Scouts were well practiced in observation and reporting. They were able to discern the types of enemy bunkers, pillboxes, and guard posts, and were trained in determining their fields of fire and other specifics. The small combined reconnaissance teams covered a large area within a remarkably short time.

The guerrillas’ ability to move freely facilitated their collection capability. An adolescent guerrilla rode a carabao (indigenous ox used for farming tasks and mobility) around the camp. He could estimate distances and see the Japanese defensive positions up close. A female guerrilla sold fruit to soldiers guarding the front gate, and then passed the information learned back to her leader. Each effort added another piece to the puzzle.35

35 Alexander, Shadows in the Jungle, 238-40.

The Alamo Scouts and guerrillas gathered at Plateros at 0300 hours on 30 January. LTC Mucci listened to their reports and was pleased that all his critical questions had been answered. “I had the camp mapped and, after drawing up the plan of action, we decided to attack that night.”36

36 Mucci, “We Swore We’d Die or Do It,” 19.

The Scouts confirmed the poor physical condition of the prisoners. It was apparent that many were not capable of walking twenty miles back to friendly lines on their own. Three years of harsh treatment had taken its toll. Mucci needed a plan to transport those in the worst shape. He leveraged the guerrilla influence on the locals: “I had the Number 1 man at a little Filipino barrio round up some carabao carts in which to bring back our American prisoners, who would be pretty weak – some would be sick and unable to make a march.” Mucci asked the natives to stage the carts near Plateros south of the Pampanga River at 2000 hours. “I also asked our Filipino friend to bring along fifty or sixty unarmed men to help carry our prisoners who were sick.” CPT Prince emphasized that: “the main thing is to get the prisoners moving. Herd them, shove them, carry them, I don’t care. But we have to get them back to the Pampanga River” and the waiting carts.37

37 Mucci, “We Swore We’d Die or Do It,” Mucci quotes from 19; Alexander, Shadows in the Jungle, 244-45, Prince quote from 245.

A major tactical concern was to isolate the camp from Japanese reinforcement. The most likely threat were the Japanese troops moving along the Cabanatuan-Cabu Road. Pajota was to “take his men to the south side of the bridge leading toward Cabu, where the main strength of the [Japanese were] and set up a roadblock there [see map “Blocking Positions”].”38 The 50 landmines would help them in that task. Mucci directed Pajota to “keep the Japanese from breaking through until the prisoners were freed.”39 Once the guerrillas saw two flares from his Very pistol (signaling that all POWs were out of the camp and enroute to Plateros), they were to withdraw to the north, protecting the flank of the raid force as it fell back to the Pampangas River with the POWs.40

38 Mucci, “We Swore We’d Die or Do It,” 19.

39 Mucci, “Rescue at Cabanatuan,” 17.

40 Mucci, “We Swore We’d Die or Do It,” 19.

Map featuring the two blocking positions set by the Philippine Guerillas (with some Rangers)
Map featuring the two blocking positions set by the Philippine Guerillas (with some Rangers). The blocking positions sealed off the objective area, preventing Japanese soldiers from reinforcing the guard force at the Cabanatuan POW Camp. The effort was highly effective and killed more than 300 Japanese soldiers.

Likewise, LTC Mucci directed CPT Joson to take his seventy-five guerrillas and “set up another road block about 800 yards south of the main gate.” He was to block any Japanese attempting to reinforce from the south and west along the Cabanatuan-Cabu Road (see map above). To meet the enemy’s armor threat, Prince attached a six-man bazooka team led by Staff Sergeant (SSG) James O. White of the 2nd Platoon, F Company, 6th Ranger Battalion. When signaled, CPT Joson’s unit was to withdraw towards Plateros to the north and west, thereby protecting the Rangers’ left flank as it moved toward Plateros and Balingcari (see map “Exfiltration”).41

41 Mucci, “We Swore We’d Die or Do It,” quote from 19; Mucci, “Rescue at Cabanatuan,” 17.

CPT Prince gave detailed instructions on the infiltration, actions on the objective, and the exfiltration. He kept one squad from 1st Platoon, C Company as a reserve with him. When all was prepared, Mucci told everyone: “Remember, all of the prisoners go. No one is left behind.”42

42 Mucci, “We Swore We’d Die or Do It,” 19; Mucci, “Rescue at Cabanatuan,” 17; Alexander, Shadows in the Jungle, quote from 245.


The Assault on the Camp

With the attack scheduled for 1945 hours, 30 January, the raid force crossed the line of departure south of the Pampanga River at 1600 hours and maneuvered through tall grass toward the camp three kilometers away. The force moved in three columns: CPT Joson’s ninety guerrillas were on the right; CPT Pajota’s men were on the left; and the Rangers and Alamo Scouts were in the middle. Since 2LT John F. Murphy and his platoon from F Company had the greatest distance to travel to reach their attack positions on the far side of the camp, they were at the front of Prince’s column. As concealment grew less, the men moved forward first in a high crawl, then dropped into a slow, low crawl until they reached their attack positions.43

43 Mucci, “We Swore We’d Die or Do It,” 19; Mucci, “Rescue at Cabanatuan,” 17; Alexander, Shadows in the Jungle, 245-46.

The command element moved to a slight rise about 700 yards from the main gate, from “where we could get a pretty good view” of the camp. “We could see there was only one tower with a [Japanese] sentry on it. The other guards had probably gone to supper,” he surmised. By 1930 hours the assault elements were in place and ready to attack.44 Men sighted their weapons on Japanese soldiers as they waited for the signal to attack.

44 Mucci, “We Swore We’d Die or Do It,” 19.

Schematic of the assault on the camp
Schematic of the assault on the camp

Right on schedule, a P-61 ‘Black Widow’ night fighter roared over the camp, drawing everyone’s eyes upward. The prisoners cheered and the guards froze, just as expected. Sharp-eyed watchers could read ‘Hard to Get’ written in large letters under the cockpit – right next to a colorful drawing of a reclining nude blonde woman.45 If the plane alone was not sufficient to capture everyone’s attention, its painted lady clinched it.

45 Pames, “The Great Cabanatuan Raid,” 72.

The strangely-shaped P-61, flown by CPT Kenneth E. Schreiber and 1LT Bonnie E. Bucks as radar operator, had a hawk’s-eye view of the camp, and the aircrew could see some of the Rangers ringing the camp. Schreiber asked “Did we blow their cover?” 1LT Bucks replied “Negative.” However, his concern drove him to circle out and make another pass over the camp. This time, when right over the prison, CPT Schreiber cut his left engine and the ‘Black Widow’ shuddered in the air. Flipping the ignition back on, the engine made a loud backfire that glued all eyes to the spectacle in the sky.46

46 Alexander, Shadows in the Jungle, 245-46; Pames, “The Great Cabanatuan Raid,” quotes from 72.

As CPT Prince later recalled, “While we were crawling across the open field, he was flying 500 feet above the camp, cutting his motor, doing every crazy thing he could to attract attention.”47 Those Rangers not yet in position took advantage of the distraction and crawled forward. Schreiber again circled the camp with his engines sputtering and kicking, thanks to his skilled manipulation of the ignition. Once over the camp he waggled the wings, killed the ignition and again caused the craft to shudder in the air. After a few more seemingly distressed passes, he flew over the prison and headed for a tree-covered ridgeline on the horizon. All eyes on the ground followed the apparently troubled ‘Black Widow’ as it slowly disappeared over the trees, still popping and backfiring. Many of the watchers expected to hear the sounds of a crash and a ball of flame rising above the trees. Instead, Schreiber maintained a low and level flight away from the camp, his immediate task of serving as a diversion now completed.48

47 Quote from interview with Robert W. Prince in: Mike Barber, “Leader of WWII’s ‘Great Raid’ looks back at real-life POW rescue,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 24 August 2005, on Internet at: http://www.seattlepi.com/local/article/Leader-of-WWII-s-Great-Raid-looks-back-at-1181340.php link, accessed on 14 March 2017.

48 Pames, “The Great Cabanatuan Raid,” 72-73.

The assault from the Rangers began precisely at 1945 hours when 2LT Murphy’s platoon (2nd Plt, F Co) opened fire on the Japanese guards who were milling about outside their quarters at the far southern side of the camp (see camp map). Several Rangers also took out the solo guard in the watchtower. Concurrently, a six-man squad led by SSG James V. Millican hit the enemy pillbox on the northwest corner of the camp with a bazooka and a volley of rifle grenades, taking it out of action.49

49 Mucci, “Rescue at Cabanatuan,” 18.

On hearing Murphy’s platoon open fire, the other assault elements went to work. 1st Platoon, C Company (1LT William J. O’Connell) had responsibility for breaching the main gate and neutralizing the adjacent guardhouse.50Ranger Sergeant Theodore R. Richardson ran to the gate and smashed at the lock with his weapon. One of the POWs sitting on a bench near the gate described the event: “This Ranger hit the padlock on the front gate with his carbine, dropped the clip, picked it up, and shot the guard.”51 The rest of O’Connell’s platoon was stacked behind Richardson. When the gate was breached, they ran past him to shoot at the Japanese in the guardhouse and then killed enemy soldiers exiting nearby buildings to see what was happening. A bazooka team fell in behind the assaulters. In quick succession the bazooka gunners moved up and destroyed four tanks and two trucks, along with the enemy soldiers trying to get them into action. The anti-tank weapons were then employed to blast pillboxes and bunkers occupied by Japanese. 1st Platoon Rangers with wire-cutters furiously clipped strands of barbed wire to allow the 2nd Platoon to pass through to the POW part of the compound.52

50 Mucci, “Rescue at Cabanatuan,” 17-18.

51 Zedric, Silent Warriors, 191. Quote attributed to Don H. Adams, a survivor of the Bataan Death March and former Cabanatuan prisoner. Adams was very surprised at seeing the “big men” burst through the gate and take control of the camp, killing every Japanese soldier they encountered.

52 Mucci, “We Swore We’d Die or Do It,” 19; Mucci, “Rescue at Cabanatuan,” 18.

Soldier firing the M1 2.36” Rocket Launcher (‘Bazooka’)
Soldier firing the M1 2.36” Rocket Launcher (‘Bazooka’). The M1s weighed 18 pounds and were widely used against concrete bunkers in addition to light tanks/vehicles.

Once the wire fences were parted, Rangers of 2nd Platoon (LT Melville R. Schmidt), quickly fanned throughout the POW section of the camp, efficiently killing every guard they encountered. They then prodded the still surprised POWs to move toward the front gate.53 “The prisoners were like wild animals,” observed PFC Kittleson just outside the main gate. “They were running all over the place.”54CPT Prince’s reserve element then entered and helped direct the still-confused prisoners to freedom. Corporal (CPL) Milton A. Englin, a Marine captured at Corregidor in 1942, recalled, “I thought they were guerrillas at first, then some big Texan came to me and said, ‘Head for the main gate.’”55 U.S. Navy Warrant Officer Paul Jackson, captured at Mariveles Naval Base three years earlier, remembered that “When the firing started, most of us thought it was the Japs coming in to kill us.”56 “We had to talk many of the POWs out of their huts,” Alamo Scout PFC Gilbert Cox recalled. “They were afraid the attack might just be a trick of the Japanese,” he explained.57 In quick fashion, the former POWs were sought out in the growing dark and told to head to the main gate while the remainder of the assault force tracked down and eliminated the enemy.58POWs who could not move on their own were carried by stretcher-bearers to the designated staging area, twenty-five yards in front of the main gate.59

53 Mucci, “Rescue at Cabanatuan,” 19.

54 Zedric, Silent Warriors, 192.

55 Quote from Zedric, Silent Warriors, 192.

56 Letter, Warrant Officer Paul Jackson, U.S. Navy, to “My Dear Mrs. [Selma] Robbins,” Long Beach, CA, 15 March 1945, copy in the USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

57 Interview, Dr. Charles H. Briscoe and Gilbert Cox, 6 February 2006, copy in the USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

58 Mucci, “Rescue at Cabanatuan,” 19.

59 Mucci, “We Swore We’d Die or Do It,” 19.

The only real opposition put up by the Japanese came while the Rangers were outside the main gate, sorting and organizing the former POWs for movement. As described by Alamo Scout leader 1LT Rounsaville, “We were all at the main gate and the [Japanese] got three rounds off with the mortars.” 1LT Nellist continued, “We saw flashes [from the mortar tubes] and we shot at the flashes. The [Japanese] only fired three shots.”60 However, those three rounds were on target and inflicted a number of casualties. The Japanese mortar men mortally wounded the Rangers’ medical officer, CPT James C. Fisher, who was treating the freed prisoners near the gate. The mortars killed one other Ranger, CPL Roy F. Sweeny, and four Rangers and two Alamo Scouts were seriously wounded.61

60 Zedric, Silent Warriors, 192.

61 Mucci, “We Swore We’d Die or Do It,” 19, 110.

The mortar explosions added urgency to getting the freed prisoners organized and on the way to Platero. LT Schmidt’s platoon was still searching and clearing the several POW barracks, aided by the light of a full moon and clear skies. While searching the camp, they had discovered a small group of Englishmen amongst the American POWs. With Schmidt’s men shouting, “All American prisoners head for the main gate,” a couple of British soldiers retorted, “we’re not Americans, but we’re coming too!”62

62 Mucci, “We Swore We’d Die or Do It,” 19, 110.

By 2015 hours, only half an hour after the assault began, CPT Prince had completed his search of the POW compound and determined all the POWs had been evacuated. He then fired off the second of his flares, signaling the guerrillas protecting his flanks that the force was withdrawing to Plateros. As a precaution, one Alamo Scout team (Team NELLIST) remained behind until daylight to double-check that all the prisoners had been rescued.63

63 Mucci, “We Swore We’d Die or Do It,” 110. The decision to leave Team NELLIST behind proved fortuitous as they recovered one British POW from the camp the next morning. The British soldier had severe dysentery and was in the latrine during the assault. In addition to being seriously ill, he was also quite deaf. Team Nellist recovered him and helped transport the man back to Guinta. See: Alexander, Shadows in the Jungle, 251-52.

“Reconstructing it now I can see how well our squad leaders carried out their assignments” 67
— LTC Henry A. Mucci, Commander, 6th Ranger Battalion

67 Mucci, “We Swore We’d Die or Do It,” 110.

Meanwhile, the Rangers pushed groups of freed prisoners down the trail to the Pampanga River, where the carabao carts were staged. When he had fifty ex-POWs organized and ready, Mucci assigned Rangers to act as guides/escorts for the group and dispatched them toward Plateros. Mucci recalled, “Getting those prisoners out was quite a task. Some were dazed. Some couldn’t believe it was true. Some tried to take their belongings . . .,” which was immediately discouraged. “Many were barefooted,” he continued. “Some of the Rangers gave their shoes and most of their clothes to the men who needed them.” However, Mucci believed “the spirit of the old-timers was wonderful. There was an old man who could barely hobble,” he related, “but he insisted on walking alone. He said, ‘I made the death march from Bataan, and I can certainly make this one.’”64 Each was determined to do their best to get out of there. “I had lost a leg while at the prison camp,” Warrant Officer Jackson recalled, “and after going for half a mile or so on my homemade peg, had to give up and be carried by my rescuers.”65

64 Mucci, “We Swore We’d Die or Do It,” 19, 110.

65 Jackson Letter.

Those not so hardy were carried on stretchers or supported by Rangers until they met the carts just south of the Pampanga River across from Plateros. Soldiers helped the freed POWs cross the Pampanga, at that time waist-deep and free-flowing. Several of the carts had problems fording the river, but the Rangers were able to muscle them across. At Plateros, the raiders and the rescued were met by friendly Filipinos offering food and water. With security forces posted, the file halted to rest and reorganize.66

66 Mucci, “We Swore We’d Die or Do It,” 110; Mucci, “Rescue at Cabanatuan,” 19.

Meanwhile, Pajota’s and Joson’s forces on the blocking positions entered the fray as Japanese Army units reacted to the attack on the prison garrison. Using the terrain and the factor of surprise to their advantage, the guerrillas withheld fire until the Japanese were deep into their kill zone. Like a well-oiled machine, the two blocking positions kept the objective area isolated from enemy interference. To the east, CPT Pajota’s force was aided by CPT Schreiber’s P-61 night fighter, which engaged the now-visible weapons flashes of the Japanese guns. Looking to join the fight after his earlier deception play, Schreiber’s ‘Hard to Get’ P-61 rolled in again and again, sweeping the enemy riverbank with machinegun and cannon fire. Like ‘shooting fish in a barrel,’ the high technology craft easily discerned Pajota’s men’s positions from those of the enemy through muzzle flashes. The P-61 destroyed several tanks and cut down scores of Japanese trying to cross a bridge that Pajota’s men had mined beforehand. The combined force from the guerrillas and the air pushed back the Japanese repeatedly. The Japanese lost over 300 troops, eight tanks, and many trucks before CPT Pajota began his withdrawal towards Plateros.68

68 Mucci, “We Swore We’d Die or Do It,” 110; Mucci, “Rescue at Cabanatuan,” 19.

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